Playwright: David Hauptschein. At: Secret Life Theatre at. Strawdog Theatre, 3829 N. Broadway. Phone: 630-886-9317; $15-$20. Runs through: Dec. 7
The scary season may be over, the ha-ha-Halloween ookiefests re-interred, but this season, their departure only ushers in a legion of seriously creepy caveats on malevolent beings who roam, unfettered and undetected, to prey upon unwary citizens. One of these lesser demons propels Secret Life Theatre's production of David Hauptschein's latest peek under the rock of our contemporary society.
The monster, in this instance, is a hot chick who indicates—in her barely intelligible, vaguely Eastern European accent—that her name is Lulu. Club-owner Cliff discovers her living in the shabby apartment belonging to his missing brother, Wes. Interrogation of the distraught squatter reveals that Wes is incarcerated in an unnamed hospital, where he has been diagnosed with hepatitis C aggravated by alcoholism. But when the invalid returns, he exhibits a mental lassitude more severe than his physical symptoms justify. The sympathetic manicurist who lives upstairs soon joins Cliff in investigating the source of his sibling's escalating deterioration.
'Emotional vampires' is what Hauptschein calls them—drifters whose lives are wholly absorbed in the pursuit of an elusive security, their efforts always thwarted by obstacles ( unemployment, dependent/exploitive family members, diminished finances, broken clocks, etc. ) beyond the power of outside assistance. Desperately they recount their troubles to kind-hearted bystanders, until the unwilling counselors become so embroiled in attempts to deliver the helpless—but curiously uncooperative—victims from an endless stream of crises that the rescuers, themselves, succumb to the psychological impotence infecting those whom they would restore.
Hauptschein's parable, likewise, sometimes gets too much in its own road: His hospital analogy—did I mention that Wes' unkempt bed is surrounded by a white muslin curtain on a track?—grows labored, as do Lulu's lengthy incoherent rants. And a plethora of slow lighting-fades stretch the running time unnecessarily. The cast, however, never engages in the excess that so often infects young actors playing loonies. Instead, under the direction of Julio Maria Martino, the ensemble conveys with—well, clinical—precision their personae's unwitting descents into tunnel-vision torpor ( though Marssie Mencotti hints at her character's struggle to resist the spiritual parasites that beset her ) .
In a compassionate universe, every cripple eventually finds a crutch—and vice versa—a phenomenon engendering the observation in therapeutic circles of crazy people making sane people act crazy. After Hauptschein's exploration of this dynamic, we might want to take a close look at our own peer relationships.